Interview: Sophie Houlden

I had the opportunity to speak to Sophie Houlden, who is a vibrant member of the developer community, with a mountain of games spanning over a decade. Her projects include Rose & Time, Bang Bang Bang, as well as over 40 (!) smaller projects/jam games.

Of your numerous games, which came closest to the vision you had going in?

Sophie: Probably “The Linear RPG“, I had some concept sketches I made and the result looks pretty close. I think the reason is because of the scale, bigger games tend to stray further from an original idea just because I spend more time on them, the idea is going to grow and evolve over time. I think that’s fine to be honest, there’s nothing inherently better about the very first image of a game I get in my head – it’s important to let that develop (or cut away from it – a great idea that is never finished is only ever an idea).

I really liked The Linear RPG – it’s good to sometimes make a small game that starts as one joke. Is humour important when you’re working on a project?

S: Humour is sometimes important, but not always. It just depends on the game. It’s enough if working on the game is amusing for me; it doesn’t need to be explicitly funny or anything. (And to be honest, trying to be funny can be a real chore because it’s often difficult.)

How important are game jams in your creative process?

S: It varies a lot, sometimes I’ll make a game in a jam and then I’ll build on it and release something more robust/polished/bigger – it can be a good way to get a project started quickly without getting caught up in minutiae that I would otherwise worry about. A jam game skips a bunch of early work and either it works or it doesn’t, you’re forced to make all the big decisions early and once the jam is over then what a more polished version needs is apparent, it’s harder to get trapped in hypothetical, “if I do this am I committed to the game being XYZ and not ABC”. On the other hand, game jams are often exhausting and I can’t really do them as reliably as I could a decade ago. When I’m doing new projects, I tend to start in a jam-like mindset once I have the energy myself – rather than waiting for a jam and hoping I happen to be healthy and energetic on that jam’s particular weekend/week/month/whatever.

You’ve been creating games for a long time, now. At what point were you able to become a full-time indie developer?

S: At no point really, and if any, then only in the last year as I got my Patreon set up. I’ve been losing money and having debts grow for a long time, and I still owe a lot of money. I’m only now with the support of my patrons in this ‘neutral’ position where I can just about afford to eat and stay at home without my debt increasing.

Has your process changed much after moving from Flash to Unity?

S: When I first moved from Flash to Unity, the two were actually very similar, at least for how I worked. Although Unity has grown and changed quite a bit over the years so I guess my process has changed along with it? The foundation stuff is always the same though; you get an idea, you experiment with it, and if you think it’s good enough and worthwhile then you grind away at it until it’s done or until you can’t work anymore.

What advice would you give to a new developer starting out today?

S: Accept that you’re not going to make money, if you still want to do it then get stuck in and find stuff that you enjoy working on. If you’re not happy then find something else, that could be a different tool, maybe a different workflow, different kind of project, or maybe something besides games. I think if I did nothing but games I’d have destroyed myself a lot more.

What do you mean by destroying yourself?

S: My point being that working on games is tough, and sometimes it’s really tough. Gotta take breaks or be broken.

For you, is making games a means to an end, or an end in itself?

S: Both (again, it depends on the game). Sometimes I make a game because I think it is a game that should exist and so I’ll make it happen, sometimes I make a game because I need something to work on that I enjoy working on, like it’s a little puzzle for me to solve. If you’re asking if I’m making games as a way to accomplish some other thing in my life; not really. I just make games because I’m someone who makes games.

Thanks so much for the insights! Sophie is doing monthly builds on her Patreon, and releasing “ducksnakes” daily on Twitter.

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Platformer Mixtape 2010

My adorable/nasty game, Platformer Mixtape 2010, is now available to freely play in its final form! Find it on Itch.io, Armor Games, or Newgrounds.

  • More levels
  • Quality-of-life fixes (pause, mute, save games)
  • Tighter controls

If you’re interested in the design and development of the game, see 6 ways to improve 2D jumping, or subscribe as later this month I’ll be blogging my system for pixel-perfect 2D in Unity.

Still easier than filing taxes.
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10 Ways to Prep for a Game Jam

The dust has settled on LDJAM 41, for which I made the rage-inducing Flappy Blocks in 48 hours. I learned a lot, and thought it was only fair to share. So here is my Top 10 List Of Things That You Should Consider Doing To Prepare For A Game Jam!

10. Prove you can export something. If it’s been a while since you used a game engine, it’s well worth putting together a non-game where you can move a basic object, and export it. This is especially true if you need plugins, such as exporting to WebGL from Unity. Make sure everything’s up-to-date and working together, and you could save yourself a lot of pain at the end of the jam.

09. Decide what you’ll eat. I mean, same as any other day, except you want to avoid going to the shops and losing time. Think about what you’ll have for meals, fruit/snacks, and how you’ll stay hydrated.

08. Set up a repository in advance, and use it. Losing work is pain. By setting up a Git repository before the jam begins, and committing every 20 minutes, you’ll never lose work and can easily get back a file you accidentally overwrote! Even better, Bitbucket or Github can backup your repositories online, for maximum safety.

07. Know what you want to get out of it. This could include making friends, learning dev skills, making a game you think is great/different/terrifying, getting followers, or any personal reason you have. By knowing what you want to get out of it, you can be much more likely to get it. Perhaps you just want to try making a game in a jam, and that’s great too!

06. Ask your friends to jam with you. For a weekend like this, it’s so much easier to stay focused if another person can see your screen. I had Joshua beside me, and he was able to help with some of my code issues. In Ludum Dare, it’s possible to work as a team in the “Jam” category, but we chose to make one game each instead. The Jam is very competitive, and neither of us are artists!

05. Choose your tools in advance. Besides your chosen environment/language, you’ll also want to think about how you will make art, sounds, and music. The old Ludum Dare site has a list of tools, so have a play around before the jam begins – it’s easier to learn when there’s no time pressure.

04. Pick an idea you can finish. It’s totally fine to make something simple! This is going to be different for everyone, but getting to the 40 hour mark without the end in sight is frustrating. If you want to challenge yourself, I suggest choosing one area specifically to learn something new; e.g. if you’ve never made dynamic sounds, or worked with pixel-perfect sprites, it could be wise to treat that as the challenge and keep the rest of your idea simple.

03. Add a day. It’s a 48 hour jam, but secretly it’s a day longer. Because on the Monday, you will be splattered and not in the mood to do much of anything. Use this day of rest as an opportunity to rate lots of other games!

02. Polish beats ambition. In Ludum Dare specifically, there is literally no rating for ambition. If you care about ratings, then spending time on polish will beat spending the same time on an extra 5 levels, every time. That said, I love ambitious games, and if it fits the targets you set out for yourself in point 7, then don’t worry about the scores and just do it.

01. Scores don’t really matter. Honestly, it’s much more important that you meet the personal goals you set out for yourself earlier. Game jams are a weird, fun challenge to undertake, and you should always be proud of the result.

In LDJAM, two of us made “Flappy Bird x Tetris” games. And yet, even though we interpreted the theme in the exact same way, our “Theme” rank was 45 places different. There’s no reason for this, besides that different people saw each game and some people are pickier than others! If that’s not a great example of why scores don’t matter, I don’t know what is.

And that’s about it! So, how did Flappy Blocks do after all this? Great! It got top 10 in two categories out of a thousand “Compo” entries, and more importantly for me, helped me connect with lots of new faces on Twitter as I’m starting my gamedev journey. In fact, it could help me connect with you right now!

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Interview: Wild Mage

I saw the art of Wild Mage – Phantom Twilight, and was immediately drawn to it. It’s got a dreamy, modern twist on steampunk-like airships and floating islands, along with some interesting ideas about terrain. Lead developer Lucas McCann was kind enough to answer some questions about the title, which has already met its Kickstarter funding goal.

Can you tell me about the game?

Lucas: Wild Mage – Phantom Twilight is an open-world action/adventure RPG featuring airships, voxel-based floating islands, and next-gen combat. Monsters can be dynamically sliced or crushed into pieces. Terrain and structures can be altered or destroyed. Spells and abilities can be acquired from monsters and lore books. Wield a variety of powerful magic as you face hoards of monsters. In addition to dungeons, treasure hunting in Wild Mage also includes exploration through traps and puzzles with light to no combat.

Who’s in your team, and how did you meet?

L: Currently, we have Fabio Amurri as the audio lead working on music and sound effects, my brother Rick McCann as 2D concept artist, and myself as lead developer working on programming, game design, animation and 3D art. Rick and I have always had a passion for video games and beta tested almost all major releases together over the years. Fabio, who is a very talented composer for video games and movies based in Italy, started working with us after coming across our posts on social media.

How long have you been working on the game so far?

L: We have been working on Wild Mage for a year now, though I had the concept of the game in my mind for much longer, as it really came from a list of features that I had wished for in video games as a gamer over the years.

Are there any games/media you’ve taken inspiration from?

L: One of my favorite games growing up is the Final Fantasy series. I always liked the idea of flying an airship and exploring a world made of floating islands, partially inspired by some of the cut-scenes in FF IX. Dungeons and the multi-player style (if we reach multi-player funding goal) in Wild Mage are inspired by Diablo, and the idea of open-world adventures with traps and puzzles is analogous to the Legend of Zelda.

What is the game’s story/lore?

L: The story is set in the beautiful yet dangerous world of Etherion, which is made up of thousands of islands floating above a dense, purple Miasma. Rising at night and burning off during the day, the Miasma spawns terrible creatures and posts constant threat to the people of the isles. As a Wild Mage, you act as the right hand of the Tower of Heaven, extracting adventures, escorting ships, reclaiming lost islands, with an ultimate goal to close the portal through which the Miasma came and restore peace to Etherion.

The art direction is really dreamlike. Does this tie into the story or the world?

L: It’s tied into both the story and the world. The dreamlike nature of the world is caused by the Miasma, which breaks down the vail between the planes of existence. The closer to the ground you get, the denser the Miasma becomes, and the more the reality breaks down.

Do you design by coming up with mechanics first, or lore?

L: The open-world nature of the game determines that the mechanics and the lore go hand in hand. The backdrop of the story has long been established, but the mechanics of the game determines how the character advances and how the story unfolds.

How does altering terrain impact the gameplay?

L: This is a great question and I’m glad you asked. In Wild Mage, destruction to terrain and structures is a key feature, but not the goal, and it has its consequences. For example, if you blow up a bridge, you may find it hard to cross a river. But if done strategically, it can slow down monsters that are chasing you. If you dig a big hole in the ground, you may find it hard to get out of it yourself. But sometimes digging a tunnel is the quickest way to get to a different part of an island, or the only way to find hidden treasures. If you destroy your airship with a fireball, you may find yourself stranded on an island. If you destroy a villager’s house for no reason, you will have to pay for the damage with gold that could’ve been used for an artifact weapon. It’s not about causing damage just for the sake of damage itself, it’s about using it to your strategic advantage. There will be trial and errors, just like life itself.

How do you organise your work, to keep track of development and such?

L: I actually have a project manager with years of product development experience on our team that helps us track progress and make sure that our timeline and milestones are met. We also structure the project in a way that is modular and easier to manage in terms of time/resources/risks. For example, instead of making a world map that is vast and empty and filling in contents later, we’re designing islands one at a time, each with its own unique adventures, and adding to the map as we go.

As a “Kickstarter” title, how would you like to reassure backers that you’ll be able to meet your goals?

L: We have been funding ourselves and working on Wild Mage for over a year now, and have already worked out the key technical innovations and core mechanics that make this game unique. At this point, I don’t see any core technical issue that may keep us from delivering the game with promised features, and what’s left is content creation and polish. We also made a decision to keep the scope for initial release small and focused, to minimize possibility of unexpected challenges and delays.

Thanks a lot to Lucas for the insights! Wild Mage – Phantom Twilight is on Kickstarter now, and is already on its way to meeting stretch goals. Beta testing is expected to start in Q3 2019.

 

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